December 2009

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In Their Own Words
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• Two Leaders Honored

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Living Judaism
• Aviva Kempner
• Vaccinations & Judaism
• New Jewish Press
• Thing or It?

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• 8 Nights of Hanukkah

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Aviva Kempner, filmmaker, brought her doucmentary, "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute recently. (Photo by Bonnie Squires)

Living Judaism

Filmmaker Extraordinaire
Aviva Kempner

-- Bonnie Squires

How does an independent filmmaker of Jewish-content documentaries break the one million dollar ticket sales barrier? As Aviva Kempner found out, one personal appearance at a time, city after city.

Kempner did it first with her award winning "Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" wich documented the extraordinary career of the Jewish baseball player from Detroit. Currently, she is touring and presenting her new film "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" about the pioneering actress, writer, producer and director Gertrude Berg and her long-running television program “The Goldbergs.”

It all began with a chance visit to the Jewish Museum in New York which was hosting an exhibit of the famous “The Goldbergs.” living-room set from the very popular television series Berg created. The series, which began on radio, premiered on television in 1949 and was the number one show on the air for many years.

Very impressed with what she learned from the exhibit about Berg, Kempner wondered why no one talked about this amazing, liberated woman who successfully made the transition from radio to television playing Molly Goldberg for 17 years. Gertrude Berg was the first actress to win an Emmy award for best actress and was the role model for actresses, comedians and television sitcoms that followed, including Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) and Marlo Thomas (That Girl) among many others. Yet Berg's name is rarely mentioned as a pioneer in television. Most people do not know her name or remember i>The Goldbergs.” Kempner often refers to her as “the most famous woman you never heard of.”

A clip from "Yoo Hoo Mrs. Goldberg".

As a child of Holocaust survivors, Kempner long ago decided that themes of Jewish content would be her life's work in film. Oh, yes, she earned a law degree first, but fortunately for us, she did not pass the bar exams. She never was good at test taking, even though she always mastered the material.

So, she turned her focus to research and creating documentaries about heroes she learned about along the way. She worked on "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!" for seven years using seed money initially from her Ciesla Foundation, which she named in her mother's maiden name as a memorial to all the relatives lost during the Holocaust.

Recently, Kempner came to Philadelphia to present her film at the Ritz theater and then again at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She came by train directly from an appearance at the Charlottesville, Virginia Film Festival so that she could be present in person to answer questions from her Philadelphia audiences. Delighted film-goers reveled in the film clips she had amassed from the old television shows, as well as the current interviews with relatives, friends and former colleagues of the late Berg, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Philadelphia Weekend Film Festival featured Aviva Kempner's documentary on Gertrude Berg, "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," recently at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Seen here (left to right) are Philadelphia Weekend Film Festival co-chairs Marsha Dorman, Lonnie Levin, filmmaker Kempner, and Pam Schreiber. (Photo by Bonnie Squires)

“Yoo-hoo Mrs. Goldberg” also shows one dark chapter in Berg’s life involving Representative Joseph McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities which attacked and blacklisted Berg's co-star on her CBS hit series. Philip Loeb was called before the House Committee and CBS threatened Berg with cancellation of The Goldbergs” if she did not fire her friend and co-star. Berg refused to comply.

Her sponsor, Sanka Coffee, was loyal and supportive, mainly because Berg's husband was the inventor of Sanka, the first instant coffee. But the die was cast, and Philip Loeb resigned, rather than sink the show. He later committed suicide.

So there is a lot of American, not just Jewish, history in "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg." The amazing thing about the series, which featured Jewish life in a tenement in New York City, was hugely popular with non-Jews of all ethnic persuasions as well as Jews, and with rural and suburban households not just city-dwellers. Kempner’s film is finding a diverse and appreciative audience as well.

To find out where you can catch Kempner's latest documentary, check the film’s website.

To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please click here.

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